Region expands two-way language learning

Texas Spanish Academy teacher Yiliam Hidalgo Suarez reads from a Spanish-language book in the Round Rock academyu2019s young toddler program.

Texas Spanish Academy teacher Yiliam Hidalgo Suarez reads from a Spanish-language book in the Round Rock academyu2019s young toddler program.

Karla Diaz of Pflugerville said she has opened more than half a dozen day cares in the Austin area, but never one quite like her new venture in Hutto.

Kidz Bilingual Academy, scheduled to open in September, is one of the first bilingual child care and preschool centers in the Hutto area and reflects a regional demand for Spanish/English two-way language-immersion programs—in which English-speaking and Spanish-speaking children become bilingual side by side.

In Texas, K-12 schools are required to provide language services for students who are not proficient in English, but some districts now offer two-way bilingual programs that extend the benefits of language immersion to English speakers as well, said Barbara Kennedy, a professional development specialist at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Applied Linguistics.

“Community members are saying, ‘If English learners are going to have the benefits, then I want my child to have the benefits,’ so there is a lot of interest and in some places a lot of pressure for [school districts] to offer these programs,” Kennedy said.

Since 2011 the number of Austin ISD schools offering two-way dual-language programs has quadrupled from four to 16, and the model is expanding in Round Rock, Pflugerville and Hutto ISDs as well.

Demand for dual language

Hutto ISD is entering the second year of its Spanish/English two-way dual language program and is planning to phase out the one-way program at both of its bilingual elementary schools by 2018, said Elva Torres,  director of federal and bilingual programs at Hutto ISD.

“The two-way dual-language program is by far the best model we can offer our children,” Torres said. “This is a trend in the area. What we’ve seen is we have a number of students and parents in the community who are interested.”

Bridget Wall of Hutto said she enrolled her daughter in HISD’s dual language program last year partly because the prevalence of the language at her husband’s job affirmed the social and economic benefits of bilingualism.

“To be honest, living in Texas I really felt like it would be an asset for her to have a second language, especially Spanish,” Wall said. “My mom  [who was a native Spanish-speaker] never forced me to pursue it and honestly I wish I would have. I just thought, ‘What an amazing gift to be able to speak a different language.’”

Maria Arreguin-Anderson, president of advocacy organization Texas Association for Bilingual Education, said parents have been some of the strongest advocates for two-way dual-language classes and have been instrumental in establishing programs in many cities.

“We have seen an increase in the number of parents from non-Spanish-speaking populations who now want their children to not only become bilingual but biliterate because they are looking at the future, not only of their children, but the future of the country,” she said.

Teacher shortage

Because of the state’s mandated bilingual services for students who are not proficient in English, bilingual teachers are in high demand in Texas, Kennedy said.

Many school districts recruit teachers from countries such as Mexico or Spain to fill the gap or rely on alternative certification programs that can fast-track teacher training, she said.

In 2013, RRISD was unable to fill dual-language teacher positions at two of its elementary schools and, as a result,  began a bilingual teacher recruitment program, according to school district documents. The school system was able to fill all positions in 2014, according to the documents.

Torres said HISD dealt with similar teacher recruitment and retention challenges, so the district approved a $5,000 stipend for dual-language teachers last year. RRISD and PfISD also offer stipends for bilingual teachers.

In 2011, PfISD launched its own bilingual educator certification program to recruit and train bilingual instructors in-house, said Kennedy, who formerly worked for PfISD and helped create the program.

Even with a district-based certification program, recruiting quality international bilingual teachers can be challenging because foreign education programs, and regulations may not correspond to American standards, Kennedy said.

“These are highly educated people from around the world, but there are huge challenges because they need to acquire a Texas teaching certification, which is not easy in many cases,” she said.

Starting young

Although area school districts offer dual-language programs starting in pre-K, Diaz said children as young as 1 or 2 years old can begin acquiring a second language. Diaz said she knows the bilingual model at her new preschool will work because she has seen children in traditional day care settings pick up words and phrases from bilingual staff or other children.

“[The toddlers] definitely learn from the older ones. They’re trying to imitate what they’re saying, and they will ask the teacher, ‘What is he saying?’” Diaz said. “I think it’s a great way to teach.”

In Round Rock, Texas Spanish Academy is one of the few Spanish immersion child care and preschool centers, but director Edina Morrison said she has seen an increased interest in starting language immersion at a younger age.

Although Texas Spanish Academy is a one-way immersion program, geared toward native English speakers, Morrison said the center gives a head start to children entering RRISD’s two-way immersion classes. At the academy, staff members speak only in Spanish as they care for and teach children ranging in age from infants to preschool, Morrison said.

“We wanted our students to be able to feed into a strong and established dual -language program,” she said. “So our students, when they finish here, they leave as bilingual students.”

Diaz said that given the demographics of the Austin metropolitan area and the trend in dual-language immersion programs, bilingual day cares and early education centers will increase in popularity.

“I think the trend will be that most centers will become fully bilingual at some point,” she said.


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